Peter Huttenlocher has left the building

The New York Times has an obituary for child neurologist Peter Huttenlocher, who surprised everyone by finding that the human brain loses connections as part of growing into adulthood.

Huttenlocher counted synapses – the connections between neurons – and as a paediatric neurologist was particularly interested in how the number of synapses changed as we grow from children to adults.

Before Huttenlocher’s work we tended to think that our brain’s just got more connected as we got older, but what he showed was that we hit peak connectivity in the first year of life and much of brain development is actually removing the unneeded connections.

This is know as synpatic pruning and it was demonstrated with this graph from classic 1990 paper.

I love this graph for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s a bit wonky. It was hand-drawn and whenever it is reproduced, as it has been in many textbooks, it’s always a bit off-centre.

Secondly, it’s crystal clear. It’s a graph showing the density of synaptic connections in the visual cortex of the human brain and you can see it’s rapidly downhill from the first year of life until the late teens where things start to even out.

This is a good thing as the infant brain starts over-connected but loses anything that isn’t needed as we learn which skills are most important, and we are left with only the most efficient neural connections, through the experience of growing up.

One of Huttenlocher’s discoveries was that this process of synaptic pruning may go wrong in people who have neurodevelopmental disorders.

Link to NYT obituary for Peter Huttenlocher.

Are classical music competitions judged on looks?

Looking at the evidence behind a recent news story

The headlines

The Los Angeles Times: People trust eyes – not ears – when judging musicians

Classic FM: Classical singers judged by actions not voice

Nature: Musicians’ appearances matter more than their sound

The story

If you wanted to pick out the musician who won a prestigious classical music competition would you listen to a clip of them playing or watch a silent video of them performing the same piece of music?

Most of us would go for an audio clip rather than video, and we’d be wrong. In a series of experiments, Chia-Jung Tsay from University College London, showed that both novices and expert musicians were better able to pick out the winners when they watched rather than listened to them.

The moral, we’re told, is that how you look is more important than how you sound, even in elite classical music competitions.

What they actually did

Dr Tsay, herself a classically trained musician, used footage from real international classical music competitions. She took the top three finalists and asked volunteers to pick out the real winner – with a cash incentive – by looking at video without sound, sound without video, or both.

Over a series of experiments she showed that people think that audio will be more informative than video, but actually people are able to pick the real winner when watching video clips. But they aren’t able to do this when listening to audio clips (these test subjects only perform at the level of chance). The shocking thing is that when people get sound and video clips, which notionally contain more information, they still perform at chance. The implication being that they would do better if they could block their ears and ignore the sound.

Follow up experiments suggested that people’s ability to pick winners depended on their being able to pick out things associated with “stage presence”. A video reduced to line drawings, designed to remove details and emphasise motion, still allowed people to pick out winners at an above chance rate. Another experiment showed that asking people to identify the “most confident, creative, involved, motivated, passionate, and unique performer” tallied with the real winners.

How plausible is this?

We’re a visual species. How things look really matters, as everyone who has dressed up for an interview knows. It’s also not uncommon for us to be misled into believing that how something looks isn’t as important as it really is (here’s an example: judging wine by the labels rather than the taste).

What is less plausible is the spin put on the story by the headlines. We all know that looks are important, but how can they really be more important than sound in a classical music competition? The most important thing really is the sound, but this research resonates with a popular cliché about how irrational we are.

Tom’s take

The secret to why these experiments give the results they do is in this detail: the judgement that people were asked to make was between the top three finalists in prestigious international competitions. In other words, each of these musicians is among the best in the world at what they do. The best of the best even.

In all probability there is a minute difference between their performances on any scale of quality. The paper itself admits that the judges themselves often disagree about who the winner is in these competitions.

The experimental participants were not scored according to some abstract ability to measure playing quality, but according to how well they were able to match real-world competition outcome.

The experiments show that matching the judges in these competitions can be done based on sight but not on sound. This isn’t because sight reveals playing quality, but because sight gives the experimental participants similar biases to the real judges. The real expert judges are biased by how the performers look – and why not, since there is probably so little to choose between them in terms of how they sound?

This is why the conclusion, spelt out in the original paper, is profoundly misleading: “The findings demonstrate that people actually depend primarily on visual information when making judgements about music performance”. It remains completely plausible that most of us, most of the time, judge music on how it sounds, just like we assumed before this research came out.

In ambiguous cases we might rely on looks over sounds – even the experts among us. This is a blow to musicians who thought it was always just about sound – but isn’t a revelation to the rest of us who knew that when choices are hard, whether during the job interview or the music competition, looks matter.

Read more

The original paper: Sight over sound in the judgment of music performance. Tsay, C-J (2013), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Special mention for the BBC and reporter Melissa Hogenboom who were the only people, as far as I know, who managed to report this story with an accurate headline: Sight dominates sound in music competition judging

The interaction between the senses is an active and fascinating research area. Read more from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the Univeristy of Oxford and Cross-modal perception of music network at the University of Sheffield

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

A detangler for the net

I’ve just finished reading the new book Untangling the Web by social psychologist Aleks Krotoski. It turns out to be one of the best discussions I’ve yet read on how the fabric of society is meshing with the internet.

Regular readers know I’ve been a massive fan of the Digital Human, the BBC Radio 4 series that Krotoski writes and presents, that covers similar territory.

Untangling the Web takes a slightly more analytical angle, focusing more on scientific studies of online social interaction and theories of online psychology, but it is all the richer for it.

It covers almost the entire range psychological debates: friendships, how kids are using the net, debates over whether the net can ‘damage the brain’, online remembrance and mourning, propaganda and persuasion, sex, dating and politics. You get the idea. It’s impressively comprehensive.

It’s not an academic book but, unsurprisingly, given Krotoski’s background as both a social psychologist and a tech journalist, is very well informed.

I picked up a couple of minor errors. It suggests internet addiction was recognised as a diagnosis in the DSM-IV, when the nearest things to an internet addiction diagnosis was only discussed (and eventually relegated to the Appendix), in the DSM-5.

It also mentions me briefly, in the discussion of public anxieties that the internet could ‘rewire the brain,’ but suggests I’m based at University College London (apparently a college to the north of the River Thames) when really I’m from King’s College London.

But that was about the best I could do when trying to find fault with the book. It’s a hugely enjoyable, balanced treatment of an often inflammatory subject, that may well be one of the best guides to how we relate over the net that you’re likely to read for a long time.

Link to more details about Untangling the Web.

Super-recogniser officers policing Europe’s biggest party

The Guardian are reporting that the London Metropolitan Police have deployed ‘super recogniser’ officers to Notting Hill Carnival to pick out known criminals from the crowd.

This is curious because this is a verified ability that has only recently been reported in the scientific literature.

It has been long known that some people have severe difficulties recognising faces – something called prosopagnosia and sometimes inaccurately labelled ‘face blindness’.

But more recently, it was discovered that a tiny minority of people are ‘super recognisers’ – with exceptional face recognition abilities – meaning they can pick out a previously identified face from huge numbers of possibilities.

A more recent fMRI study found that super recognisers tend to show a greater level of activity in the fusiform gyrus.

This area is heavily associated with face recognition, although debates are ongoing whether it is face-dedicated or just specialised for learned fine-grained visual recognition of various sorts.

It’s not clear how the Met Police identified their ‘super recogniser’ officers but it seems it might be an interesting exercise in screening for key neuropsychological characteristics and deploying those officers to the appropriate task.

Needless to say, picking out a few dodgy faces from a street party that welcomes a million people every year would be exactly this sort of job.

More details from the The Guardian report:

…17 specialist officers will be holed up in a central control room several miles away in Earls Court monitoring live footage in an attempt to identify known offenders.

Chief superintendent Mick Johnson from the Metropolitan police said it was the first time the “recognisers” – who have been selected for their ability to remember hundreds of offenders’ faces – have been used to monitor a live event.

“This type of proactive operation is the first one we have done in earnest in real time so we are going to be looking at it very closely to see how effective it is and what we get out of it,” he said.

The Met has 180 so-called super recognisers – most of whom came to the fore in the aftermath of the London riots when they managed to identify more than a quarter of the suspects who were caught on CCTV footage…

One of the super recognisers on duty will be Patrick O’Riordan, who says he has had an ability to pick people out in a crowd and recall faces since he joined the Met 11 years ago.

“It is with me all the time. Often when I am on a day off or out with my girlfriend I will see someone and know straight away who they are and where they fit in,” said 45-year-old. “It could be their eyes or the shape of their forehead or their gait, but something usually sticks with me. It something that started from day one as a police officer – really it is just something that I took too naturally.”

Link to Guardian article on super recogniser officers at the Carnival.
Link to summary of study that identified ‘super recognisers’.
pdf of full-text of the same paper.

Period architecture, majestic views, history of madness

Regular readers will know of my ongoing fascination with the fate of the old psychiatric asylums and how they’re often turned into luxury apartments with not a whisper of their previous life.

It turns out, a 2003 article in The Psychiatrist looked at exactly this in 71 former asylum care hospitals.

It’s cheekily called ‘The Executives Have Taken Over the Asylum’ and notes how almost all have been turned into luxury developments. Have a look at Table 1 for a summary.

The authors also had a look at the marketing material for these new developments and wrote a cutting commentary on how the glossy brochures deal with the institutions’ mixed legacies.

The estate agents want to play on the often genuinely beautiful architecture and, more oddly, the security of the sites, while papering over the fact the buildings had anything to do with mental illness.

Examples of the language employed by property developers in sales brochures advertising old hospital buildings included ‘sanctuary’ and ‘seclusion’ in ‘grade II listed buildings’, ‘tastefully converted period buildings’ and ‘luxury penthouses’. There was a strong emphasis on security, with ‘a secure and private environment’, ‘24 hour security guards’, ‘security gates’ and ‘CCTV surveillance’. Original asylum architecture is even imitated in modern buildings: ‘the classic facades that emulate the original architecture’, and the clock tower of one former hospital was used as a symbol to represent the whole development.

Residents at the redeveloped site of Nethern Hospital will be greeted by ‘the gentle bounce of tennis balls on private courts’ and ‘the distant voices of children’. They will, however, remain unaware of the 1976 inquiry into high levels of suicides that found serious understaffing and unsatisfactory conditions on the wards.

At St George’s Park in Oxfordshire [previously Littlemore Hospital], prospective buyers were informed of the ‘original 19th century elegance’ and ‘original features including high ceilings’. They are not informed that the original psychiatric hospital has been newly built over the road.

In total, reference was made to the former psychiatric hospitals in only four of the 12 promotional brochures and web sites. This was in the general reference to a former hospital or by euphemistic language, such as ‘society’s less able’, referring to people with learning disability at Earlswood Hospital.

Since the article was written in 2003, many more have gone the same way.

Link to ‘The Executives Have Taken Over the Asylum’.

A technoculture of psychosis

Aeon Magazine has an amazing article on the history of technology in paranoid delusions and how cultural developments are starting to mirror the accidental inventions of psychosis.

It’s by the fantastic Mike Jay, who wrote The Air Loom Gang, an essential book that looks at one of the most famous cases of ‘influencing machine’ psychosis.

In his article, Jay applies the same keen eye for history and culture and explores how the delusions of psychosis are carefully intertwined with culture.

Persecutory delusions, for example, can be found throughout history and across cultures; but within this category a desert nomad is more likely to believe that he is being buried alive in sand by a djinn, and an urban American that he has been implanted with a microchip and is being monitored by the CIA. ‘For an illness that is often characterised as a break with reality,’ they observe, ‘psychosis keeps remarkably up to date.’ Rather than being estranged from the culture around them, psychotic subjects can be seen as consumed by it: unable to establish the boundaries of the self, they are at the mercy of their often heightened sensitivity to social threats.

The article covers everything from Victorian delusions of electrical control, to the breakdown of novelist Evelyn Waugh, to the fiction of Philip K Dick.

It’s an excellent piece, and even those who have a special interest in the history of psychosis will find it full of fascinating gems.

By the way, it looks like Jay’s book The Air Loom Gang is about to be re-released in a newly updated version, under a new title The Influencing Machine.

Link to ‘The Reality Show’ in Aeon Magazine.

The deafening silence

All silences are not equal, some seem quieter than others. Why? It’s all to do with the way our brains adapt to the world around us, as Tom Stafford explains

A “deafening silence” is a striking absence of noise, so profound that it seems to have its own quality. Objectively it is impossible for one silence to be any different from another. But the way we use the phrase hints at a psychological truth.

The secret to a deafening silence is the period of intense noise that comes immediately before it. When this ends, the lack of sound appears quieter than silence. This sensation, as your mind tries to figure out what your ears are reporting, is what leads us to call a silence deafening.

What is happening here is a result of a process called adaptation. It describes the moving baseline against which new stimuli are judged. The way the brain works is that any constant simulation is tuned out, allowing perception to focus on changes against this background, rather than absolute levels of stimulation. Turn your stereo up from four to five and it sounds louder, but as your memory of making the change rapidly fades, your mind adjusts and volume five becomes the new normal.

Adaptation doesn’t just happen for hearing. The brain networks that process all other forms of sensory information also pull the same trick. Why can’t you see the stars during the daytime? They are still there, right? You can’t see them because your visual system has adapted to the light levels from the sun, making the tiny variation in light that a star makes against the background of deep space invisible. Only after dark does your visual system adapt to a baseline at which the light difference created by a star is meaningful.

Just as adaption applies across different senses, so too does the after-effect, the phenomenon that follows it. Once the constant stimulation your brain has adapted to stops, there is a short period when new stimuli appear distorted in the opposite way from the stimulus you’ve just been experiencing. A favourite example is the waterfall illusion. If you stare at a waterfall (here’s one) for half a minute and then look away, stationary objects will appear to flow upwards. You can even pause a video and experience the illusion of the waterfall going into reverse.

It’s a phenomenon called the motion after effect. You can get them for colour perception or for just lightness-darkness (which is why you sometimes see dark spots after you’ve looked at the sun or a camera flash).

After-effects also apply to hearing, which explains why a truly deafening silence comes immediately after the brain has become adapted to a high baseline of noise. We perceive this lack of sound as quieter than other silences for the same reason that the waterfall appears to suck itself upwards.

So while it is true that all silences are physically the same, perhaps Spinal Tap lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel was onto something with his amplifier dials that go up to 11. When it comes to the way we perceive volume, it is sometimes possible to drop below zero.

This was my BBC Future from last weekend. The original is here.

Don’t panic but psychology isn’t always a science

Every so often, the ‘is psychology a science?’ debate sparks up again, at which point, I start to weep. It’s one of the most misplaced, misfiring scientific discussions you can have and probably not for the reasons you think.

To understand why it keeps coming around you need to understand something about the politics of studying things.

Science has higher status in academia and industry than the humanities so suggesting to a practitioner that “they’re not a scientist” can be the equivalent of suggesting “you’re not as valuable as you make out”.

This plays in out in two ways: less scientific disciplines get less funding and people start being knobs at parties. The second is clearly more serious.

Probably every psychologist has had the experience of someone coming up to them and drunkenly suggesting that psychology is ‘all made up’. Psychiatrists get the same sort of crap but in the ‘you’re not a real doctor’ vein from other medics.

This makes people who work in psychological disciplines a bit insecure, so they’ll swear blind that ‘psychology is a science’.

Psychology, however, is not a science. It’s a subject area. And you can either study it scientifically or non-scientifically.

I’m going to leave aside the debate of what defines science, which has been better covered elsewhere. No, there isn’t a strict definition of science, but the “you know it when you see it” approach is sufficient if we want to see if something can be widely considered scientific.

I’m also going to leave aside the debate about whether you can study mind and behaviour scientifically. It’s clear that you can, even if some areas are harder to measure than others. This is what is usually meant by the “is psychology a science?” debate. I consider this to be a settled issue but it is also where the debate usually misfires.

In other words, psychology can be a science, but it isn’t only a science.

There are many folks who do legitimate psychology research who are not doing science. It’s not that they think they are but really aren’t (pseudoscience) or that they’re doing it so poorly it barely merits the name (bad science). It’s that they don’t want to do science in the first place.

Instead, they are doing qualitative research, where they intend to uncover patterns in people’s subjective impressions without imposing their own structure onto it.

Let me give you an example.

Perhaps I want to find out what leads victims of serious domestic violence to drop a prosecution despite the abuser already being safely in jail, pending trial.

I could come up with a list of motivations I think might be plausible and then find a way of testing whether they are present, but essentially, no matter how rigorous my methods, the study still depends on what I think is plausible to begin with.

This could be a problem because I may not know a whole lot about the area. Or worse, I may think I do, but might largely be basing my assumptions on prejudice and what passes for ‘common sense’.

Qualitative methods get at how people understand the situation from their own perspective and it looks at common themes across what they say.

In this case, the study by Amy Bonomi and colleagues applied a kind of qualitative analysis called grounded theory to transcripts of jailhouse phone calls between victims of domestic violence and the abusers.

Here’s what they found:

…a victim’s recantation intention was foremost influenced by the perpetrator’s appeals to the victim’s sympathy through descriptions of his suffering from mental and physical problems, intolerable jail conditions, and life without her. The intention was solidified by the perpetrator’s minimization of the abuse, and the couple invoking images of life without each other.

Once the victim arrived at her decision to recant, the couple constructed the recantation plan by redefining the abuse event to protect the perpetrator, blaming the State for the couple’s separation, and exchanging specific instructions on what should be said or done.

There is no pretence that this study has discovered what happens in all cases, or even if these are common factors, but what it has done is shown how this works for the people being studied.

This is massively useful information. If you’re a scientist, suddenly you have a whole bunch of hypotheses to test that are drawn from real-life situations. If you’re not, you understand one instance of this situation in a lot more detail.

The reason that human psychology can be studied both scientifically and non-scientifically is that the object of study can be objectively observed and can describe their own subjective experience.

This doesn’t happen with electrical impulses, enzymes or subatomic particles.

I’m a neuropsychologist by trade, perhaps the most clearly scientific of the psychological disciplines, but I’m not going to pretend that qualitative research psychologists aren’t doing important work that makes psychology more valuable, not less.

So psychology is not just a science, and is better off for it.

Oh yeah, and the drunk guy at the party? He’s like someone who thinks a screaming orgasm is only a drink. I’m laughing at you chump, not with you.

Car crash attraction

A curious case report from a 1960 edition of American Journal of Psychiatry describing a man who gets turned on by being injured by ‘an automobile operated by a woman’.

The patient, a man in his late twenties, reported a periodic desire to be injured by a woman operating an automobile. This wish, present since adolescence, he had by dint of great ingenuity and effort, gratified hundreds and times without serious injury or detection. Satisfaction could be obtained by inhaling exhaust fumes, having a limb run over on a yielding surface to avoid appreciable damage or by being pressed against a wall by the vehicle. Gratification was enhanced if the woman were attractive by conventional standards. Injuries afflicted by men operating autombiles or other types of injury inflicted by woman had no meaning. He experienced pleasure from the experience, thus establishing the symptom as a perversion rather than a compulsion.

The patient’s sexual, social, and occupational adjustment was good and his intelligence superior. He intellectualized to a considerable extent but could experience and manage strong positive and negative feelings. He was ashamed of his symptom but somewhat proud of its unusual nature. A Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Index did not demonstrate significant psychopathology and did not indicate the probable presence of perversion or impulse neurosis.

The case could be classified as a type of symphorophilia – sexual arousal associated with disasters or accidents.

Link to locked AJP case study.

What makes the ouija board move

The mystery isn’t a connection to the spirit world, but why we can make movements and yet not realise that we’re making them.

Ouija board cups and dowsing wands – just two examples of mystical items that seem to move of their own accord, when they are really being moved by the people holding them. The only mystery is not one of a connection to the spirit world, but of why we can make movements and yet not realise that we’re making them.

The phenomenon is called the ideomotor effect and you can witness it yourself if you hang a small weight like a button or a ring from a string (ideally more than a foot long). Hold the end of the string with your arm out in front of you, so the weight hangs down freely. Try to hold your arm completely still. The weight will start to swing clockwise or anticlockwise in small circles. Do not start this motion yourself. Instead, just ask yourself a question – any question – and say that the weight will swing clockwise to answer “Yes” and anticlockwise for “No”. Hold this thought in mind, and soon, even though you are trying not to make any motion, the weight will start to swing in answer to your question.

Magic? Only the ordinary everyday magic of consciousness. There’s no supernatural force at work, just tiny movements you are making without realising. The string allows these movements to be exaggerated, the inertia of the weight allows them to be conserved and built on until they form a regular swinging motion. The effect is known as Chevreul’s Pendulum, after the 19th Century French scientist who investigated it.

What is happening with Chevreul’s Pendulum is that you are witnessing a movement (of the weight) without “owning” that movement as being caused by you. The same basic phenomenon underlies dowsing – where small movements of the hands cause the dowsing wand to swing wildly – or the Ouija board, where multiple people hold a cup and it seems to move of its own accord to answer questions by spelling out letters. The effect also underlies the sad case of “facilitated communication“, a fad whereby carers believed they could help severely disabled children communicate by guiding their fingers around a keyboard. Research showed that the carers – completely innocently – were typing the messages themselves, rather than interpreting movements from their charges.

The interesting thing about the phenomenon is what it says about the mind. That we can make movements that we don’t realise we’re making suggests that we shouldn’t be so confident in our other judgements about what movements we think are ours. Sure enough, in the right circumstances, you can get people to believe they have caused things that actually come from a completely independent source (something which shouldn’t surprise anyone who has reflected on the madness of people who claim that it only started raining because they forget an umbrella).

You can read what this means for the nature of our minds in The Illusion of Conscious Will by psychologist Daniel Wegner, who sadly died last month. Wegner argued that our normal sense of owning an action is an illusion, or – if you will – a construction. The mental processes which directly control our movements are not connected to the same processes which figure out what caused what, he claimed. The situation is not that of a mental command-and-control structure like a disciplined army; whereby a general issues orders to the troops, they carry out the order and the general gets back a report saying “Sir! We did it. The right hand is moving into action!”. The situation is more akin to an organised collective, claims Wegner: the general can issue orders, and watch what happens, but he’s never sure exactly what caused what. Instead, just like with other people, our consciousness (the general in this metaphor) has to apply some principles to figure out when a movement is one we’ve made.

One of these principles is that cause has to be consistent with effect. If you think “I’ll move my hand” and your hand moves, you’re likely to automatically get the feeling that the movement was one you made. The principle is broken when the thought is different from the effect, such as with Chevreul’s Pendulum. If you think “I’m not moving my hand”, you are less inclined to connect any small movements you make with such large visual effects. This maybe explains why kids can shout “It wasn’t me!” after breaking something in plain sight. They thought to themselves “I’ll just give this a little push”, and when it falls off the table and breaks it doesn’t feel like something they did.

This is my column for BBC Future from a few weeks back. The original is here. It’s a Dan Wegner tribute column really – Rest in Peace, Dan


Photo by Flickr user William Arthur Fine Stationery's. Click for source.Just a quick post to say that the #DearMentalHealthProfessionals hashtag on Twitter is one of the most interesting and helpful things I’ve read online in a long time.

It contains heartfelt feedback, gratitude, anger, and useful insights and makes for essential reading.

If you don’t use Twitter you can read it live here and some of the responses have been archived here.

How Lariam can trigger psychosis

The New York Times has an article on how the anti-malaria drug mefloquine, better known as Lariam, can send you spiralling into madness.

Coincidentally, the link between mefloquine and madness was the subject of a recent review article in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law which reads like a cross between an H.P Lovecraft short story and a neuroscience paper.

Case reports suggest that mefloquine intoxication may begin with a variable prodrome which may present with personality change, unease, anxiety, phobias, and a sense of impending doom and restlessness. These prodromal symptoms may progress to outright paranoia, delusions, magical thinking, persecutory mania, restlessness, aggression, and panic attacks…

Mefloquine psychosis frequently includes auditory or true visual hallucinations, frequently involving religious or morbid themes. Auditory hallucinations typically feature voices that may be incoherent or mumbling. Some individuals report a sense of the presence of a nearby nondescript figure. Olfactory hallucinations have also been reported. The often vivid and terrifying nature of the hallucinations produced by mefloquine are illustrated by an early unindexed case report, similar to at least one other published report, describing a man who jumped from his hotel room in the false belief that his room was on fire.

Of note, vivid dreams or horrific, terrifying nightmares, also frequently reported by users of mefloquine, are characterized as having “Technicolor clarity” and being “vividly remembered days later,” suggesting that these may also be prodromal to or inform later symptoms of psychosis.

The most likely explanation for why this happens is that mefloquine can trigger an encephalitis or inflammation of the limbic system – a deep brain area heavily involved in both memory and emotion.

Disturbance in this region is known to greatly raise the risk of psychosis. For example, people with temporal lobe epilepsy (which some of the limbic system is part of) have a greatly raised risk of psychosis.

Link to New York Times article Crazy Pills.
Link to open-access scientific article on mefloquine side-effects.

A half hour of hallucinations

I’m on the latest PLOS Mind the Brain podcast discussing the science of hallucinations with the inimitable Ruchir Shah.

We cover everything from the experience of ‘hearing voices’ and its relation to mental illness to how chemists are pioneering new variations of psychoactive substances to get around drugs laws.

In this podcast, we discuss one of Vaughan’s clinical research interests, which is hallucinations. What are they, and how are they diagnosed? We start by discussing some examples of hallucinations, and why auditory and visual hallucinations might be more common than other types, like taste or smell hallucinations. We then discuss the role that culture might play, and the interesting phenomenon that certain types of hallucinations are actually more common in specific countries.

When then move on to another of Vaughan’s academic interests, that of psychoactive drugs, and their potential relationship to hallucinations and psychosis. Finally, we end with a discussion about designer drugs, and how labs all over the world are synthesizing new psychoactive compounds much faster than governments could possibly ban then, effectively making the “war on drugs” irrelevant.

A thoroughly enjoyable discussion which you can download from the link below.

Link to hallucinations in Mind the Brain podcast Episode 3.

A concise, solid grounding in neuroscience

50IdeasHumanBrainI often get asked ‘how can I avoid common misunderstandings in neuroscience’ which I always think is a bit of an odd question because the answer is ‘learn a lot about neuroscience’.

This is easier than it sounds, of course, but if you want a solid introduction, a book by Mo Costandi called 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know is an excellent starting point.

If you recognise the name Mo Costandi its because he has been writing the brilliant Neurophilosophy blog for the best part of the last decade as he’s moved from being a neurobiologist to a science journalist.

The book consists of 50 four page chapters each of which condenses a key area of neuroscience in a remarkably lucid way.

There is no pandering to the feint of heart in the selected topics (from free will to neural stem cells) but neither is there a glossing over of conflicting evidence or controversy.

You won’t get poorly researched hype here about ‘mirror neurons’ being ‘responsible for empathy’ or brain scans showing how the brain ‘lights up’ but you will get a concise, balanced and entertaining introduction to key concepts in neuroscience.

It’s worth noting that the book does not hand-hold you. It’s not a complete beginners guide. It’s aimed at a ‘smart high-school kid and up’ level but if that’s you, and you want to get to grips with the brain, this book is ideal.

Link to more details on 50 Human Brain Ideas You Really Need to Know.

The curious relationship between truth and madness

I’ve got an article in The Observer on the misunderstood relationship between truth and madness.

The definition of a ‘delusion’ has just been changed so it no longer has to be considered a ‘false belief’.

It turns out that this issue turns up regularly in world events, owing to the sad tendency for whistle-blowers to be ‘accused’ of being ‘mentally ill’ when others don’t like what they’re saying.

It’s not clear who forcibly sedated her in 1972. It’s not certain that she was admitted to a psychiatric ward in the following year. What’s definite though is that many people thought she was mad as she ranted about conspiracies in the White House during eccentric phone calls to the press. Questions about Martha Beall Mitchell’s sanity were encouraged by the Nixon administration, who consistently briefed against her and probably had her medicated against her will. But ultimately her claims were proven correct when the Watergate scandal broke.

It’s worth bearing in mind that we’re not talking about the everyday use of the term ‘delusion’ (typically meaning mistaken) but the psychiatric definition which describes intensely held beliefs that are impervious to reality.

They are fascinating in many ways but, as the article discusses, they do not necessarily mean that the person is wrong.

Link to Observer article on truth and delusion.

Shuffle Festival

A festival of music, film and neuroscience is about to kick off in an abandoned psychiatric hospital in East London. Called Shuffle Festival, it runs from the 8th – 18th August.

It is happening in the old St Clement’s Hospital on Mile End Road and is being curated by Oscar winning film director Danny Boyle.

If you check the programme, August 11th is the ‘Day of the Mind’ where during the day you can enter for free and experience a host of neuroscience events, stalls and experiments.

Later in the evening there is an event with Ruby Wax, following by an extract of Luke Fowler’s R.D Laing documentary All Divided Selves.

After I’ll be taking part in a discussion about the legacy of R.D. Laing, neuroscience and mental health and later in the evening there’s the inevitable showing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The story of how I got involved in the event is a little curious. One Saturday, I decide to walk from Kingsley Hall, the location of R.D. Laing chaotic 60s experiment in mental health care, to Liverpool Street Station, the location of the original ‘Bedlam’ hospitals.

As I was passing St Clement’s Hospital I noticed some folks on the inside, shouted until I get their attention and asked if they could let me in. It turns out it was the organiser and friends scoping the place out.

I got to take some great photos, gave them my email address and despite starting the day by yelling excitedly at them, they’ve asked me to speak.

By the way, I’ve had a morbid interest in charting how some of London’s biggest Victoria asylums have been converted into luxury apartments but after the festival St Clement’s is going to be turned into affordable housing for East London which makes a nice change.

If you’re interested in the Shuffle Festival, a lot of the events are selling out quickly so grab tickets while you can.

Link to Shuffle Festival.